June 22, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail
Blackmail. 1929. Great Britain. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Blackmail. 1929. Great Britain. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

These notes accompany screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, June 23, 24, and 25 in Theater 2.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) is the leading example of a commercially successful film director who never lost his taste for innovation and experimentation. He must be something of an anathema to those on the avant-garde fringes of film whose whole career may not attract the audiences that Psycho (1960) or The Birds (1963) could garner in a single day. Yet, his body of work remains extremely personal and unified in its vision of a precarious universe.

No other major director so relished sharing his methodology and insights. His book-length colloquy with François Truffaut and his frequent television interviews are testaments to how seriously he took his profession and his consciousness of his own artistry. A John Ford shoot was like an extended family on vacation that frequently produced golden masterpiece seemingly by accident. An Orson Welles shoot was often like a series of rollercoaster rides; he would earn a few bucks acting in an inferior film and then summon his far-flung cast and crew to some obscure location to shoot a few scenes while the money lasted. With Hitchcock, virtually everything was planned and storyboarded in advance. Hitchcock considered this the real creative process, and the actual shooting of the film bordered on a boring routine where he had to contend with actors (or “cattle,” as he once called them). One of the most amazing things about Sir Alfred was that he got some of the best performances out of many of the cinema’s greatest actors, including Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, and Anthony Perkins, even though he must have found the process distasteful.

Hitchcock’s couple of youthful years in Germany appear crucial to his early development. He was exposed to the working methods of F. W. Murnau (then filming The Last Laugh) and savored the sophisticated technical facilities at the Ufa Studio. Since Robin Wood’s book-length study of Hitchcock was published in 1965, there has been room for little doubt that the director’s American films are far superior to the pre-1940 British films. However, Hitch’s basic themes and obsessions were already there, ready to be fleshed out by his growing maturity and the greater technical facility of American production. Of his ten silent films, The Lodger (1926) remains the most interesting, although critic Jonathan Rosenbaum believes that the silent version of Blackmail is actually superior to the talkie. Regrettably, time constraints prevent us from showing both. (Besides, after reading Belloc Lowndes’s original novel The Lodger, it turns out that she was more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock was at the time.) In any case, when sound finally came to Britain in 1929, Hitch was primed to test and be tested by the new medium.

As he explained to Truffaut, the wily Hitchcock expected that the producers would eventually want to release Blackmail as a talkie, even though it was shot silent. “We utilized the techniques of talkies, but without sound. Then, when the picture was completed, I raised objections…, and they gave me carte blanche to shoot some of the scenes over.” Because star Anny Ondra (Mrs. Max Schmehling) was German, and dubbing had not yet been invented, this necessitated an English actress reading her lines from just out of camera range. Hitchcock incorporated a number of experiments in the use of sound (really, it was all still experimental then). For the British Museum sequence, for example, he used Eugen Schüfftan’s mirror effect, which he had observed at Ufa when Schüfftan was doing special effects for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Such key Hitchcock themes as moral ambiguity and transference of guilt are touched on and left to later development, and the British Museum is the first iconic monument to be made a into a playing field for Hitchcock to indulge his fantasies. (Steven Jacobs, in The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, has some interesting things to say about the director’s use of museums in several of his films. One can only speculate on what he might have done with Yoshio Taniguchi’s Marron Atrium here at MoMA).

Following the success of Blackmail, Hitchcock’s output was mostly an uneasy mixture of musicals, filmed stage plays, and absurdities. Murder (1930) is particularly interesting for the emergence of Hitchcockian perversity from the closet, while Number 17 (1932) strikes one as a dose of James Whale on a bad day. By the mid-1930s, however, Hitchcock had found the path he would tread to fame, fortune, and artistic triumph for the next four decades.